For me, part of being a good teacher is taking the time to be a student and I am fortunate to be part of the James Hill Ukulele Initiative and The Ukulele Way, learning new things as I progress through my musical journey. But in addition to this, every Thursday morning I am blessed to spend time in the studio of Chalmers Doane.
As one of Chalmers’ students I am constantly reflecting on the words of wisdom he imparts as well as the stories he tells which are not only full of nuggets of advice but also inspire me to continue to strive to be a better musician and teacher.
Rhythm! The beat of the human heart determines how well the human body will function just as rhythm determines the quality of the music. One memorable demonstration in the importance of rhythm that I have learned from Chalmers is to first without telling your students what you are playing tap out “Jingle Bells”, you can also do this on your uke by damping the strings. Typically, students will be able to name the tune even without playing the notes. Then play a major scale descending and ask them to name the tune. Most will immediately name the scale. But, then use the same notes and add the rhythm of “Joy to the World”. Without rhythm, one cannot typically name the tune, even when all the right notes are played. Rhythm needs to be at the core of all our teaching.
One of the many stories Chalmers has told me is the story of educator Catherine Allison, whose best advice about teaching was to always make sure you look every student in the eye at least once during every class. This is a practical way of establishing a connection with your students. It is impossible to give each student in a class the same amount of attention during every lesson. But I make sure I look each one of them in the eye at least once. There is nothing better than catching the eye of another person and sharing a smile while playing a tune! This is a simple thing but goes a long way in establishing student engagement.
Never play a tune the same way twice. Teach a piece in two different keys and then play them together (just for fun!). Try swinging a ballad. Although providing students with some structure and routine provides safety and security, throwing in a few surprises, while keeping in mind your teaching goals, will keep things entertaining and fun. We all can’t be comedians but we can spice things up a little in keeping with our own personalities. Bring out your adventurous and creative side! Have fun!
These are just a few of the big picture lessons I have learned from my mentor and teacher Chalmers Doane. As we enter into summer here in Nova Scotia (finally!) the sunshine and warm weather provides a wonderful backdrop for playing more music and thinking about our teaching practices.
I am off to the beach with my uke because as my teacher says…
Angela Dwyer is a music educator from Truro, Nova Scotia. She’s also Director of the James Hill Ukulele Initiative.
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